by Robert Alan
It was as if the door opened into another world. The chilly autumn evening disappeared behind me as the door chimed closed. A soft golden light, like a perfect summer morning, greeted me as I found myself drifting silently inward. I felt dizzy and distant somehow. A capsule of deep and beautiful silence seemed to surround me, and caress me, and soft angelic music drifted in and out of my senses.
My gaze sailed across the span of the room, which seemed so much larger than it had appeared from the outside. Paintings and photographs lined the walls, and books and records and more pictures filled the rest of the room. At the back there were tables and a coffee counter. PEACETOPIA, the sign had said above the door. I had chuckled sarcastically before I'd entered, but the tiny shop's name seemed so appropriate now.
I thought I felt voices calling out to me as I passed each work of art. My body continued on, allowing me only a moment to gaze at each picture. I walked ahead slowly in my daze, until I realized I was standing still. I was looking up at a painting -- or a photograph -- I honestly can't remember which it was -- and I was completely captivated.
Was I staring into someone's perfect face, whose beautiful eyes transfixed my own in a moment of absolute joy, drawing me into her world of perfect clarity and peace? Or was I staring into the crystal blue water of a vast wondrous ocean that gently flowed on and on forever? Or was it a field of perfect gold and violet flowers swaying in an endless splash of green? I can't remember. I don't think I even knew then, but I knew that I could not move, even if I had wanted to.
I stood there for I don't know how long. Time seemed to stop. My thoughts ceased. A deep sense of joy filled my existence, and I saw worlds and visions beyond imagining that disappeared as fast as they came.
"Beautiful, isn't it!" a distant voice finally whispered in my ear. I blinked. The magic moment seemed to be shattering in slow motion. Panic swept through me, but subsided, leaving me achingly longing and slightly annoyed.
I expected to feel reality finish the damage that had been done and come crashing down on me when I turned around. But an old man was smiling at me, and there was something about him that almost seemed to sustain the magic. I had seen him when I came in, I thought. At the counter. He had long white hair that fell around his shoulders, and a shiny bald spot on top. His smile was warm and calming and genuine. His deep brown eyes sparkled with something that reminded me of the perfect moment I had tasted.
The old man turned away slowly, still smiling, and waved his hand at the rest of the room. My eyes followed, and I saw people browsing at records and gazing at paintings, or sitting at tables sipping coffee as they leisurely leafed through books.
"Each of them is traveling along the paths of their lives, searching," the old man began in a soft, soothing voice. "Some aren't sure what it is they're searching for. Some think they know, but need reassurance. Some think they have all the answers and don't need to search. Most don't even realize they're searching at all. But they're all here, anyway."
As he spoke, something touched me deep inside. But I must admit, the rational part of me was a little uncomfortable. I shifted my feet and tried to smile politely.
"Some will find revelations here -- some just a moment's comfort, or something new for their minds to puzzle over. But each thing that they find is a key -- a key to their future, a key to understanding their past, a key to their finding Truth."
He was silent for a moment, and I nodded, not really grasping anything he was saying. Why was he telling me all this? I listened to the music coming from a speaker somewhere to the left. Very beautiful -- had I ever heard it before? It sounded so familiar. I turned back to the old man, finally gathering up the courage to excuse myself to look at some more paintings. But he spoke before I could open my mouth.
"I've been waiting for you, Robert," he said with a smile.
I should have felt scared, but I didn't. The gurgling feeling inside me suddenly broke the dam of rational thought and temporarily drowned my reasoning. "I've been waiting to find you, too!" I found myself saying.
He put his arm around my shoulder and we walked together across the room, like a father and the returning prodigal son. "It's a great responsibility," he began. "PEACETOPIA is a refuge, but only a temporary haven. No picture or story or song found here in this shop is perfect, but to those who are searching, there are glimpses of perfect worlds, visions of absolute beauty to be found in each and every creation. Some might try to use these books and paintings and songs as an escape from a world they aren't sure how to be a part of, or don't want to be a part of. We have to help them learn to use PEACETOPA and all that they find within as tools that help build strength. Havens of beauty that bring comfort and insight, but which can only be indulged in for moments at a time. We must never forget that we are alive, and we must make the best of this world, with all the good and the bad. PEACETOPIA can help them to cope with the bad to get to the good."
My heart was pounding and all that he said made such perfect sense.
"For only people wonder about life," he continued after a deep sigh. "And only people need to find reasons for their existence, and the meaning of life, the world, and the universe. There are two keys that can help unlock our inner truths. The Love that we share with one another, and Beauty in Art. Love and Beauty are one in the same. And what is Truth? To find love and beauty in all you see, and to try to bring it where it is not found."
"I think I know what Love is. But what is Beauty?" I thought as he paused. Before I could ask he was speaking again.
"Love is not just a feeling or a need to be fulfilled. And Beauty is not just a perfect thing, or a perfect sound, a perfect feeling or a perfect place. They can be found in a smile of joy, a feeling of warmth, hopes, dreams -- anything that brings comfort to a living soul, even if just for an instant. For in that instant of tasting love or beauty, our reality is transformed. We transcend our ordinary existence and experience a time and a place when our minds are filled with peace. A timeless, spaceless place where peace really prevails on earth. Where everything fits perfectly into the wondrously interconnected web of life. And though it is only for an instant, that brief glimpse of heaven on earth gives us hope and the strength to try to do what we can to make this reality just a little bit more like that shared wish for a better world."
He paused once again and his grip around my shoulder tightened. "Are you ready for that responsibility, Robert?" he asked, still smiling at me.
"Yes, Yes!" I gasped. There were tears in my eyes.
"Well, go then," the old man beamed as we walked across the room towards the door. "Go and bring back a work of beauty to share. Something that will bring a smile, or a spark of insight to somebody searching." He held the door open for me. "May Peace Prevail on Earth," he whispered as I walked out the door and was back in the real world.
The icy chill made me shiver and I pulled my coat together around my body as I hustled over to my car. I got inside and started it up. Looking back at the window beneath the simple sign, I saw the soft glow coming from within, and I longed to stop the car and run back inside PEACETOPIA. But I knew I could not. Not until I brought back what the old man had requested.
As I drove away my experience became more and more unreal, and my mind was filled with confusion. What had just happened? Was I crazy? I found myself recounting my life story -- to reassure myself that I was a real person. My whole life seemed so distant somehow.
I was 23 years old, two years out of college, traveling around the country in my car for the last -- how long? 3 weeks...4 weeks? I had quit my job and sold everything, except for my guitar, my camera, some clothes, a box of books, another box of stories, poems, drawings and photographs, a box of pictures I'd cut out of magazines and artbooks, and two milkcrates filled with records and CDs. And that was about it. Oh, and $800 in traveler's checks, left out of the $3000 I'd started out with. Not much to show for 23 years of living.
After college I worked for a year as a salesman, knocking on doors, trying to sell people things they didn't want. Then another year sitting at a desk, pushing a pencil over meaningless numbers, and I had had it. Was I going to do this all my life? There had to be more! So I went to find it. But I knew you couldn't run away from your problems and expect to find all the answers somewhere out on the road. But then I did, didn't I! Or had I?
"Anyway," I thought as I drove away from the old man, "Where does it all leave me now? I have $800 in my pocket, and no plans for my life!" I drove into the night, thinking about my life and PEACETOPIA.
Five years passed by before I set off back to see PEACETOPIA. Meanwhile, I ended up going back to a regular old 9 to 5 job. I found someone special, fell in love, got married. But all the while, PEACETOPIA was in the back of my mind. And though I went through so many dry spells in between, I started to write stories again. Stories that I thought the old man would be proud of. And I took photographs that I thought might mean something to someone. And I longed for the day when I could join the old man to help people to find themselves.
"I just need to go back there, Linda," I told my wife one day. I always knew she never totally believed me about my mysterious encounter at PEACETOPIA. But she loved me, and she didn't laugh and say "I told you so" when we went back to that little town and found there was no PEACETOPIA there. As a matter of fact, the other shop owners assured me, there had never been an art gallery or coffeehouse or record store in that town, and never any place called PEACETOPIA.
I stood there numb and depressed, nearly letting the manuscript in my hands fall to the ground. Linda patiently led me back to the car. "Maybe it was another town," she suggested.
"No, I remember this town as clear as day," I sighed, and threw the manuscript I was once so proud of onto the back seat. "It was right there," I said pointing at an empty lot, and I felt the tears well up in my eyes as I climbed into the passenger seat.
"Robert," Linda said softly after a while as we drove slowly away. "If it means so much to you, why don't we open PEACETOPIA back home!"
I thought about that for a while, and felt comforted somehow. I almost smiled as I watched the trees and fields drifting slowly by. "But it takes a lot of money," I finally sighed. "PEACETOPIA has to be big!"
"Well," Linda said cautiously, "you can start off with a small store and take it from there." She reached back and pulled out the manuscript. "You can get the money by trying with your book again. It's good, you know. It's only a matter of time before someone realizes it."
I looked fondly over at her. "I love you, Linda. Yeah, maybe this time someone will publish it." We drove on and my heart was filled with hope.
It took a while longer, but finally my book was published. And though the advance didn't make me rich overnight, it was enough to open PEACETOPIA.
You can find me there now, behind the counter, listening to some new CDs I just got in, or sifting through piles of artwork, choosing those whose beauty strikes me, and which I think might help someone, somehow.
I hope to have a bigger place someday. But for now PEACETOPIA is a modest little shop. Not at all like that mysterious place I can remember so clearly. But people come through the doors every day; some just to browse, some to joke about my encounter with the old man, to which I always just smile. And others come hoping to find answers. Some don't find any, but some do. And though they may not all discover revelations, I think I've seen quite a few smiles.
© 1982, 2002 Robert Alan